From the District Superintendent

The Why - Online Sermon

Posted 19 May, 2020 by Rev. Kathleen Overby Webster

The Why    Philippians 1:3-11    

Kathleen Overby Webster, Roanoke District Superintendent

Prepared for May 17, 2020 worship services   Link to watch online

Grace to you, and peace, in the name of our Lord Jesus. It is wonderful to join with you, the congregations of the Roanoke District, for worship today. I have been so thankful over these weeks of closure to visit and worship with so many of you through the wonders of technology. Week to week I have observed the ways you, clergy and laity, have grown more comfortable and adept with these new electronic and digital tools. I celebrate the teams that make worship, Bible study, musical selections, preschool chapel time, Morning Prayer, and nighttime story reading possible. Not only possible but compelling, engaging, and ever more proficient. While, like you, I long to again worship in person, I realize that it will be in a new normal fully aware of the potential of virus spread. So I know that what you have learned and gained by moving to on-line delivery, as it were, will continue to be a necessary and vital part of your ministry going forward. Thank you for your holy boldness and faithfulness to the gospel of Christ.

Now, I invite you to hear a word from the Apostle Paul who wrote with affection to the church in Philippi; he too longed to be with them in person but was prevented from that, not by virus, but by imprisonment.

Philippians 1:3-11, Common English Bible

I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers.  I'm thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it's always a prayer full of joy. I'm glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I'm sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.  I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all mypartners in God's grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God. This is the word of God for all the people of God. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Pray with me,O God, may the words of my mouth and the whispering meditations in each of our hearts be acceptable to you; our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I didn't start out this week thinking about this reading from Paul. Instead I was riveted by a charge from 1st Peter: Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15).

Do you find yourselves on the receiving end of demanding questions?

  • When will we be able to go back to school?
  • Where can we get food?
  • Why can't we go to church?

Or perhaps you've been the one asking the demanding questions.

  • How will I ever get through this?
  • Who will help us?

Again and again throughout this quarantine I've found myself asking and being asked

  • calmly explaining the rationale for public safety behind the ban on in-person worship
  • making best guesstimates of what a new normal will entail
  • lamenting as we 10 stood beside my sister-in-law at her husband's grave, (especially sad that this man who loved to talk to others could not have a proper visitation with lots of conversation and stories)

It is in the midst of being ready to make a defense that Paul's words to the disciples in Philippi ring clear:

This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight.  I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.

As Fred Craddock once wrote (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, copyright 1985)

"First Paul prays that the Philippians will grow and mature in love. Not a love that is sentimental and easy and grins at the wrong time; not a love that shrinks from truth-telling and tough engagements; but a love that is joined to knowing and understanding, to probing and discerning, to putting itself to the test in real-life situations and making moral choices in matters that count."

Three months ago (though I admit it seems much longer in the midst of this pandemic isolation)  we held a district learning event as part of our Leading on the Edge series focused on Racial Reconciliation. In the testimonies and table conversations, in the memories and calls to actions, we were challenged to speak up, listen to, advocate for, and stand with. The truth of the need for such days and such lived out discipleship was displayed yet again in the senseless killing of Ahmaud Arbery. It is another wrenching moment in our national life, another sign of our divide and our sin. And yet, I ask myself, in what small ways, in never-making headline situations, am I (are we) making moral choices in matters that count. How is our discipleship lived out day-to-day in ways that giveglory to God?

Dr. Craddock continues in his reflection:"Secondly Paul prays that on the day of Christ they will be pure and blameless (having neither stumbled nor caused to stumble). There is no room here for pride or superior holiness, no reason to be keeping score, for such lives are the fulfillment of that gift of righteousness which comes from God thorough Jesus Christ, and such lives continually offer themselves as acts of praise."

In some measure, at least, such clarion discipleship comes from clearly knowing our "why." 

One of  the clearest illustrations of knowing "your why" comes from a "Breaktime" that comedian Michael Jr presents...I encourage you to search it out on YouTube. From the stage he is in conversation with Daryl Duff a member of the audience and discovers that man is a music educator. Michael Jr asks him to sing a few bars of Amazing Grace; he does and it is very good; the man has talent. But then Michael Jr asks him to sing it in the context of a specific situation (his uncle has been released from prison; or he had been shot in the back as a child and now is healed; he is singing at the service celebrating his aunt's life)...when Daryl Duff sings from that place he touches heaven from that coliseum seat. It is the difference between knowing "what" and knowing "why". We are always busy and engaged with the "what", doing a boatload of good in our communities (food pantries, reading buddies, sewing face masks). Knowing our  "why" moves us beyond charity. The why, of course, is Jesus. Jesus invites us to entangle our lives, our resources, our hopes, our powers, our connections, our privilege with those we might otherwise discount as "other". When there is no "other" it is just us, neighbors in the community God has created through Jesus; neighbors we are to love as dearly and deeply and fully and expansively and carefully as we do ourselves. Then our lives, all our lives, will be acts of praise. Thanks be to God Amen.


Gracious and loving God; help us daily to walk with you, that we may keep the commandments of Jesus, follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and witness to the hope that is within us, sharing Christ's love in the world.


Go in peace to serve Christ and always be eager to do good.


May the God who creates, redeems, and sustains, keep you steadfast in faith, buoyant in hope, and abounding in love. And the blessing of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you and remain with you always. Amen.

(The Prayer, Charge, and Benediction are adapted by permission of Westminster John Knox Press from Feasting on the Word: Worship Companion. Copyright 2012-2015)